Math as a Religious, Romantic Experience?
By Skip Sheffield
That is how S. Ramanujan (Dev Patel), a young Indian genius, feels about higher mathematics in “The Man Who Knew Infinity.”
Ramanujan is based on a real Indian math genius, as chronicled in Robert Kanigel’s 1991 biography, adapted for the screen by director Matt Brown.
Rananjuan grew up poor in Madras, India. We meet him in 1913, when he has a menial shipping clerk job with an arranged marriage to Janaki (Devika Bhise). His passion is creating mathematical theorems that are revolutionary and mind-bogglingly complex, though he had no formal education. Rananjuan mailed several examples of his work to noted mathematician G.H. Hardy (Jeremy Irons) at Cambridge University in England. Hardy immediately saw extraordinary genius, and he invited Rananjuan to come to Trinity College to pursue his work.
Rananjuan may have been smarter than everyone else, but he was subject to prejudice as an Indian and the fact he had no formal education or academic proofs. It is hard to prove something when it comes directly from God. He gained an early champion from university don John Littlewood (Toby Jones), who recognized his genius and encouraged him to proceed at all costs. He also gained a diehard enemy in in Professor Howard (Anthony Calf), who was largely responsible for blocking Rananjuan’s application for a fellowship. There were also other cultural hardships, such as lack of vegetarian food and the ridicule that came when he wore Indian attire.
Rananjuan ran around the blockade with help from the famous mathematician Bertrand Russell (Jeremy Northam), who helped him apply for and win a Royal Fellowship.
There were other hardships. World War I broke out and Rananjuan became infected with tuberculosis. If you are looking for mathematical breakthrough specifics you will not find them. There is vague reference to how Rananjuan’s equations help explore the mysteries of black holes nearly 100 years later. Dev Patel is a most appealing and vulnerable young actor, and Jeremy Irons is fine as his stern but sympathetic fatherly mentor.
It is hard to make mathematics exciting, but this film at least makes it dramatic. If you find it all hard to believe, the real-life characters are displayed at the end of the film.